“I didn’t care whether their Daddy was the Head of the Ku Klux Klan”
Oral Interview with Felix Goodwin
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
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Felix Goodwin was born in Lawrence, Kansas in 1919, the son of two African-American educators. Owing to his family’s frequent moves within Kansas Goodwin attended segregated as well as integrated schools throughout the state. After graduating from High School, he first joined the Conservation Corps and in 1939 signed up for the 25th Infantry of the U.S. Army. By 1942, he had advanced to Master Sergeant and worked temporarily with the 731st Military Police Battalion in Newark, N.J. During World War II he served in both the Mediterranean and European theatres, receiving his commission in 1945 in Italy.
Stationed in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, Goodwin took an active part in the integration of the U.S. Army from 1948 on. In 1952 he helped integrate a mostly white Battalion serving as their 1st Lt. Commander. In this interview Goodwin provides a cursory account of the challenges and difficulties associated with this task as well as his strategies for success, recalling that “I told them (the white Southern soldiers) I didn’t care whether their daddy was the, the head of the Ku Klux Klan. I told those black fellas, ‘I didn’t care where you come from or how strong you thought you were an NAACP or anything else. We have an AMERICAN Company here in Germany and you are going to obey the Army regulations.” Moving back to the United States in 1953 Goodwin was assigned to New Orleans, LA supervising the desegregation of the Army.
Goodwin’s experiences elucidate the interplay of deeply engrained racial prejudices and the local reality of statewide segregation in further complicating a successful integration of the U.S. Army. In this environment Goodwin’s confident demeanor and use of his rank on behalf of racial equality repeatedly led to frictions with the local populace and white soldiers. Following his promotion to Major in 1959 and graduation from the University of Wisconsin in the Advanced Public Relations Course, Goodwin spent several years working in Washington, DC, California and Arizona. He retired as a Lt. Colonel after 30 years of military service in 1969, earning a doctorate and becoming the Assistant to the President of the University of Arizona later in life.
[On his Life as an African-American in Kansas, 1939]
Goodwin: I got a job over in this restaurant as a busboy. I’d been working about three days and there were three white men sitting at the table about half drunk, ‘Come here, boy.’ And I walked over to the table, of course. ‘I know you know how to do the bucking wing.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir. I don’t.’ And he says, ‘Oh, yes, all niggers know how to dance.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m very sorry, sir, but I don’t.’ And one thing led to another and I turned around and I walked away. And this character told me, ‘You don’t turn your back on me,’ and of course started cussin’ and so forth. ‘I’ll come over and kick your a in,’ and all of that. Well, you know, I’m a nineteen year old now and I’ve, I’ve been two years around military folks and all of that and it so happened I was a fairly descent boxer. I was descent enough to go in the Golden Glove and get the hell beat out of me. (Laughter) But, and of course, when the man jumped up, well, a little altercation took place.
[…] And I no longer had a job. I worked for a very short while for a doctor in his home, in the yard and so forth. And slept in the basement. Of course, this was all for just about, these two jobs together didn’t last a month and a half. The lady of the house was a very promiscuous person. She had a couple of men come in there while, during the day while her husband was gone. And then she decided that I was available and I was scared. And, you know, this was back in the days of the Scottsboro Boys and all of this stuff. Of course, I came home and told my mother that, uh, what happened. My mother said, ‘Well, you better get away from there.’ And so I did.
[On integrating the U.S. Army in Germany]
Goodwin: At the time they started investigating whether to integrate or not, I was in Mannheim, Germany commanding an all-black truck company. We got word about a report [from the Gillem Board] about this so-called integration, but we didn’t have any part of that at all. We had practically all black troops there, all service companies—quartermaster truck, quartermaster service, the honorary guard for the general, all black. At the same time as this report, they gave us some information about VD [venereal disease] to pass on to the men, and we did that, but they gave us nothing about integration to pass on.
Then they shipped me off to another truck battalion and those men were all black except the white officers and the HQ [headquarter] company. They moved me once again, to take over another truck company that was in one hell of a mess. They were having trouble with it […] Anyway, by this time it was in the spring of 1952 and I was told we were going to integrate the battalion. We had four or five companies from the battalion. And only one company, mine, had all the black officers and enlisted men. So I was called in and we were told that the companies would be broken up. The new integrated companies were going to be ten percent black and they were bringing in white fellows from all around to form this mixed company. They would move out ten percent of the white boys out of a company and move in ten percent of a black company. Well, there was no problem as long as they had ten percent of privates or corporals. But where the problem started was with your black First Sergeants and Master Sergeants and Lieutenants, of course.
[On Handling White Soldiers’ Opposition to Integration in Germany]
Goodwin: I got moved to headquarters—that was all white guys from Lubbock, Texas. The Sergeant Major owned a store in Lubbock and everybody in HQ had worked with him back home. But it ended up I was pretty well running things. Our first inspection was a mess, though. Some white replacements had come in from Mississippi and Georgia and then we had about six or seven black soldiers integrated in to the unit. Our guys were mostly cooks and others working in the motor pool, no black non-commissioned officers.
For the first inspection the white soldiers had taken big sheets of white paper and drawn flags on them. There was a Confederate flag, and on the other wall there was that old flag with the curled snake that said, “Don’t Tread on Me.” And they were all standing there when I walked in to inspect the area. I didn’t say a word, just started inspecting the stuff in the lockers. I cited them for scuffed shoes and stuff not hung properly, but I did not say anything about those flags. I went into the next room and it was the same thing—the same two flags—a Confederate and a Rattlesnake flag. The third room was like that too. The fourth room was not, and I said, “Where’s all your flags?” and they said, “Sir, we are Yankees.” So I didn’t question them, I just moved on. But the next room had flags. When I got to the last room I found my colored cooks, colored mechanics, and so forth. I asked one man, “Why aren’t you in the room with the mechanics?” But the [white] First Sergeant started stammering and told me there was not enough room for all of the mechanics to be together in the mechanics area. And I said, “Well, god dammit, you better find some room. You’ve got six stripes on your arm and I can take them away.” He tried to tell me I could not understand him because colored people were Protestants and he was Catholic, but I told him, ‘Hey, I’m a Catholic, too.’ I had a reputation of being one hard man, and mostly I lived up to my reputation. So I told the sergeant to get his men assembled around the steps of the building. They all came running and they had this grin on their faces, like oh, yeah, he’s gonna be raising hell about our flags.
“Soldiers,” I said, “we have a problem in our company. I see we have a very patriotic company that loves flags. But, I’m mad as hell because I did not see a United States flag up there. We’ve got a Nazi flag, a Confederate flag, a don’t-tread-on-me-Revolutionary-War flag, but, I don’t see the flag of our country. So starting at the front door and into every room, we are going to have all four flags—the American flag, and then those other three that you want. Which means we are going to have to get the stands and enough flags for every room. Now in your footlockers, you’re going to have to take down your mama’s pictures and your girlfriend’s, and put those flags in there, too. I can’t force you to buy the flags, but we’ll just proportion the cost across everyone here. I think it will cost about $500.00. So all the men who do not want to pay for the flags, just step over here to my left.” Well, that left about 15 guys to my right, and they were looking at me like I was crazy. So I told them that they had about three hours to raise the money. When we met again in three hours, of course those men did not have the money. But they could tell I wasn’t going to take any of that mess. I told them they would all be privates if this thing didn’t clear up. I said [to the white soldiers], I didn’t care whether their Daddy was the Head of the Ku Klux Klan. I said, “This is the United States Army. I don’t give a damn if your daddy is Robert E. Lee or J.E.B. Stuart or whoever. It makes no difference to me. The Civil War is over.” But, I was tough on the black guys, too. When they complained I told them, “I don’t care how high up you are in the NAACP. We have an American company here in Germany and you are going to obey the Army regulations. I don’t intend to have any racial problems in my Company.” When we had our re-inspection we made a 97 out of 100. We continuously got the highest grades in the corp. Those fifteen guys just fell in line and became military after that. They may have muttered among themselves but not to me. That was my experience in Germany when we integrated […]
[On the Differences of Life for African Americans in Germany and the American South]
Goodwin: But it was, it was like that in the South. I mean, another example of, of how my, my kids, the littlest kids. This was 1953. My kids are born in ’51, 49 and 45. We go down to Sears to buy a washing machine and a dryer. My little girl was running over to the water fountain. Up over the water fountain is ‘white’. Well, they didn’t pay no attention to that. I mean, they was born and raised in Germany, lived all, you know, around. They get up on the stool, they got a little stool there. They can step up. And I think Shelby, the middle girl, was drinking. So a white woman ran over and grabbed my child […and said] ‘She ain’t got no business drinking out of this water fountain. They got a colored water fountain downstairs.’ (p4)
Goodwin: Now while I’m, you know, back in 1949 I started back in the college over in, in Germany. When the University of Maryland opened up over there. And I, when I got to, uh, New Orleans the black schools weren’t teaching. They had two black colleges there. Dillard and Zavier. And they did not have the courses that I was taking with Maryland. So I went down to Tulane where they told me to get the hell off the campus.
[On being an African American Officer in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1953]
Goodwin: […] but when we came back to the states in 1953 I was stationed in New Orleans and they had not integrated at all. At first my family was living in one of the hotels around New Orleans, a black hotel. I asked to go to the officer’s quarters at Camp Leroy Johnson there and the sergeant driving me took me to an empty barracks that was all dusty and unused. It was all closed up and it was about 90 degrees and humid. You can imagine what it was like inside. I told the sergeant to drive me back to HQ. When we pulled up I saw the captain standing in the window looking out at us. Then he slipped away. I told the sergeant to take me to the back door of the building and when we got there we met that captain coming out the back door. We talked for a little bit and straightened things out. Finally he said he was going to take me to the VIP quarters. Ha! It was funny because when we got there a black maid was there and she told me right off, “You’re in the wrong place.” I told her to please get out of my way and let my children come in, and she was just adamant, telling me that I could not come in there. Finally, she said, “Well, we never had no colored officer in here.” And I said, “Well, now you do.”
Then they wouldn’t serve me in the officer’s bar. I don’t drink, but I was just checking it out to see what they would do about me. They wanted me to go to the colored NCO club, but I said, “I’m an officer and I will not go to any back rooms. I expect to be served.” This old white-haired man in civilian clothes jumped up and called me a black s.o.b. I asked the bartender who the old white-haired bastard was, and he jumped out of his chair. He said, “You want to know who this old white-haired bastard is?” and I said, “Yes, I want to know. You are the one that called me a black son of a bitch, so I presume that we should know each other.” He said he had been the commander of the base. But you see he was retiring. That’s how come I was there. I was brought in with the new General. I had just gotten there a little early. That former commander told me, “By God, if I wasn’t retiring I’d court martial you,” but I told him, “Sir, if you weren’t retiring I wouldn’t be down here. I didn’t ask to be here. The new commander wanted me here.”
[On Integrating the Bathrooms at the Military Post in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1953]
Goodwin: When the new commanding general got there we had all kinds of things to fix up and integrate. Like, they had segregated toilets. There were toilets for officers, enlisted men, white ladies, white men, colored ladies, and colored men. The only colored man working there was the janitor! I told the General about the situation and he called a sort-of spot inspection. Naturally I called attention when he walked in and I saluted him and all. He said, “How many toilets do you have here, Goodwin?” And I told him. He said, “How many sexes work out here, Goodwin?” And I said, “Sir, as far as I know only two.” He said we would only keep two toilets, then, and which ones did I want to keep. I looked him dead in the eye and didn’t crack a smile and said, “Sir, I have never been in the white ladies toilet.” He knew it was a lie, because I had been in there to check out and see if we wanted to keep it. But we made a show of going over to look at it. Let me tell you, in the white ladies room they had a couch, they had a chest of drawers, and a big mirror. They had dispensers and hand-towels. In the colored toilets they just had the latrines with a partition pulled between them—the partition did not even come to the floor, there was no privacy. So I told the General, “Sir, I would like to keep this one for the ladies, and I would like to keep the white officer’s toilet for the men. We do not need an enlisted men’s toilet.” We set the other rooms up as supply rooms and one was turned into a mimeograph room. Some of those white women had a real problem with sharing their space, but after a little adjustment and a few confrontations, we just made it all work out.
Now a few days later we had this white woman that worked in there who worked for the headquarters’ Commander and her name was Mrs. Eloise Roth. R-O-T-H. And Ms. Roth was complaining that she had not been sitting on toilets behind colored folks. And she was complaining that Ms. Jones went in there and used the women’s room just like anybody else. And she was in there complaining to my, to my secretary, to Ms. Singerson. And I heard her. And I told Ms. Singerson to have Ms. Roth come in and see me. […] So she came in. So I said, ‘Now I want to get one thing straight. I understand that you told Ms. Jones that you didn’t want her to go in, in the restroom. And you don’t have any authority to do that. Now I run this building, not you. And I understand that you don’t want to sit on the toilets behind the colored woman. Now let me tell you what you can do. You can, one, you can try to transfer out of here if you want to. But if you stay here and if the other women and people in there don’t object, you can find you a proper receptacle, a pail or anything that’s covered. And you can go ahead and keep it under your desk and when you decide that you need to urinate you can take it the room and go in there and fill it up or do whatever you want to do with it. And then you don’t have to sit down. Now at noon time when you take your lunch break, if you’ve got to go sit on the toilet, well then you can leave the base and go out and sit on one of those outside the base.’
[Excerpts from Interview with Felix Goodwin Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Tuscon, Arizona, 1998]